The Face of Big Data

This week, I had the pleasure of meeting with Andy Rossmeissl, co-founder and leader of the Faraday team. Faraday is a big data company that first broke into the scene by gathering data for the Department of Energy on potential solar panel customers. Since then, the company has spread to helping colleges target potential students and companies target consumers for retirement plans.

“Big data” is a term that conjures up images of drones outside of windows, or data banks filled to the brim with one’s life history. I myself was on the fence about the industry, considering the usefulness and invasiveness. However, upon meeting Andy, I found that the actual face of big data is a friendly one.

Faraday is small, consisting of 15 employees. The meat and potatoes of their work is in the development and upkeep of their data program. Having seen it up close, it’s truly fascinating. The entirety of the United States is broken up into hexagons, ranging in color from dark black to bright yellow. The aesthetic of it is very techno-punk, looking like something out of a Phillip K. Dick novel.

Users can put in interests and demographics of their target market, and search within regions to find out which households are ripe for the picking. The brighter yellow a hexagon, the higher the population that fits a user’s parameters. Following this, users can order a mailing list based on what they’ve narrowed it down to, cutting out the clutter of the “spray and pray” marketing model.

What seems concerning is the ability to define an individual household by its interests, but Andy set our minds at ease. He explained that if a user makes their search too specific, the system will explain that the search was too narrow and ask them to change it. Furthermore, he addressed the concerns of health privacy, stating that the business ethics in place at Faraday would keep them from selling sensitive health information, using the example of giving a list of people suffering from depression to a pharmaceutical company.

And while this is good news, this is not the case with all data companies.

Firms such as Castlight Health and Welltok contract with companies to preemptively determine employees’ health needs. Walmart uses these firms, having them directly contact employees with tips and treatment options for conditions that said employees are estimated to be at risk for.

Castlight Health recently launched a new platform that will actually predict if a woman is pregnant or not based on her age, number of previous children, whether she recently ceased taking birth control, and fertility information. This, naturally, caused an uproar from consumers (Smith).

So where is the line drawn? Does the ability to so specifically target consumers and deliver information and promotions outweigh the blatant invasion of privacy present in many firms’ operations?

Where I draw the line, in my own ethical thoughts, is at the point where information has stopped being given willingly. Information that someone freely shares on the internet, or their shopping habits through a retailer, are things that are pretty public, and there is no expectation of privacy. There is little unethical in simply compiling this information and selling it; it’s out there anyway, these firms just make it easier.

However, when health information starts being distributed, information taken from a person’s insurance records, then it gets unsettling. There is a reason that those who work in healthcare of pharmaceuticals are bound by a confidentiality code. I work in a pharmacy myself, and have to abide by HIPAA regulations. When that confidentiality is broken, it can cause shame, embarrassment, and serious safety risks.

There may be a right way to do big data, but what we see (and fear) is the wrong way to do it. I have wondered myself how to enforce ethical standards in the industry, and who gets to draw the line in the sand between what is sacred and what is not. I’ll sum it up with Andy’s answer when he was asked about how to ensure ethical behavior in big data: “Well, let’s just hope the laws catch up.”

 

Smith, L. J. (2016, February 17). Big data knows if you’re pregnant. Retrieved February 28, 2016, from http://www.theverge.com/2016/2/17/11032606/big-data-employers-health-info

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